Sunday, November 3, 2013
Spartans would be worthy test for OSU
By Adam Rittenberg
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- The debate about Ohio State hasn't been where the Buckeyes will spend their postseason, but when.
For months, Ohio State has been pegged for Pasadena, Calif. Its dominant performances in recent weeks, combined with what seems to be a weak league, only validate the belief. The only drama is whether Urban Meyer's crew will be there Jan. 1 for the 100th Rose Bowl Game or Jan. 6 for a game with greater significance, the BCS national championship.
The Buckeyes' path to Pasadena, with Wisconsin in the rear-view mirror, has seemed as wide and unobstructed as a tarmac in the dead of night. A Big Ten title was a formality.
But there is something standing in Ohio State's way. A big, green wall -- a green monster, if you will.
Michigan State is on a collision course with Ohio State and likely will face the Buckeyes on Dec. 7 at the Big Ten championship game. And as Michigan found out Saturday afternoon, colliding with the Spartans and their defense isn't pretty.
Ohio State might be the Big Ten's best team, but the league's best unit belongs to Michigan State, which smashed Michigan 29-6 at Spartan Stadium.
The Spartans harassed Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner all game, sacking him seven times.
"That's a complete game for us," MSU senior linebacker Max Bullough said.
"A dominant day by our defense," coach Mark Dantonio added.
Complete is holding Michigan to the lowest net rushing total (minus-48) in team history. Dominant is holding Michigan to its lowest points total in the series since a 34-0 shutout in 1967. Complete is recording seven sacks, 11 tackles for loss, a forced fumble and an interception. Dominant is allowing 2.8 yards per play, 12 first downs and 168 total yards.
Michigan came into the game averaging 6.4 yards per play, 19.8 first downs and 446.4 yards, not to mention 42.4 points.
"You never think you're going to be that good," coordinator Pat Narduzzi said.
Michigan talked during the week about being bullied in its last trip here, when Michigan State racked up six personal fouls in a 28-14 victory. The Spartans were much more composed Saturday, committing only one personal foul, on special teams in the closing seconds.
Calhoun, who now leads the Big Ten with 6.5 sacks, gives Michigan State the elite pass rusher it has lacked the past few seasons.
"Four-man pressure, it helps you out when you've got a guy who can make something happen," Narduzzi said. "Julian Peterson's in the locker room afterward, and that's the kind of guy [Calhoun] looks like. He's a great player."
The defense's signature stretch in a signature performance came late in the third quarter, when Michigan found a sliver of hope following a Raymon Taylor interception return to the Spartans 41-yard line.
First down: Calhoun and safety Isaiah Lewis drop Gardner for a 5-yard loss.
Second down: Allen sacks Gardner.
Third down: Allen and Davis sack Gardner.
Narduzzi noted that sudden-change plays, such as the interception, can spark panic. His defense relishes them.
"They think they have the advantage; they think they're going to score," Bullough said. "It's a momentum change for them. So if we go out there and stuff them, and we keep 'em out of even scoring a field goal, it's double: It takes away theirs and it gives us momentum.
"It's an opportunity for us to change the game."
Michigan State has changed the game in the Big Ten. The Spartans don't have the Legends division title locked up, as Nebraska is just a game back and Minnesota isn't out of it. But if Michigan beats Nebraska in Ann Arbor next week, when the Spartans are off, MSU will be two games clear of everyone else in the division with three to play.
Michigan State has celebrated after five of its last six meetings with rival Michigan.
It will be a surprise not to see the Spartans in Indianapolis for the second time in three seasons, especially with the emergence of quarterback Connor Cook and a serviceable offense to complement the defense.
Ohio State-Michigan State would be good for the Big Ten, which desperately needs some sizzle in its signature event.
The Buckeyes offense is on fire behind quarterback Braxton Miller and a bruising offensive line. The Spartans defense is surging behind Calhoun, Allen, Bullough, Dennard and others.
"You want a shot at the best," Bullough said. "If you want to be considered the best, you've got to perform and play against the best in those moments, and Ohio State seems to be the team that's doing that.
"If we have that opportunity, we'll take it head on."
One team unlikely to appear in Indy is Michigan, which, by its own championship-or-bust standards, seems headed for another failed season. The Wolverines' young offensive line was no match for Michigan State, and Gardner's season of extremes took another dip.
Michigan still gets a shot at Ohio State, but its inability to beat Michigan State, which has won five of the teams' past six meetings, likely will extend its Big Ten title drought to a staggering nine seasons.
"They've got a good football team," Narduzzi said, "but we've got a great football team."
Chants of "little sister" rained down in the closing minutes, a reference to the "little brother" comments made by Michigan running back Fitzgerald Toussaint during the week. But Michigan State has moved beyond the name-calling.
"Call us little brother, big brother," Allen said, "but when it's on the field, we show who's the big brother and who's the little brother."
Call Michigan State the biggest threat to Ohio State. Beating Michigan isn't new for the Spartans under Dantonio. Neither is winning the division.
There's one item left: a Rose Bowl appearance.
"We have confidence right now," Dantonio said. "As long as we handle success, we'll be just fine."
Dennard was asked afterward about a Gatorade-dumping attempt on Dantonio, but corrected the reporter, saying Narduzzi was the intended target.
"We're saving one for Coach D," he said. "Somewhere in Cali."